Council delves into inclusionary zoning

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By John Larson
jlarson@tacomaweekly.com

As part of a big picture assessment of housing needs, Tacoma City Council has been examining a number of policy decisions that could create more affordable housing, a pressing matter in a region where housing costs have been escalating in the past few years. On Sept. 10, the council delved into inclusionary zoning during its Committee of the Whole meeting.

Inclusionary zoning is a planning tool by which a local government can encourage developers to include affordable units as part of a larger project. An incentive is generally offered to the developer, such as allowing for a building to be a story or two higher than what the normal zoning would allow, in exchange for setting aside some apartments to be rented at a rate that meets a definition of affordable.

Brian Boudet, manager of long-range planning for the city, led the discussion. Inclusionary zoning has been used by other cities around the nation. It was included in the recent sub-area plan for the Tacoma Mall area, where a number of apartments and townhouses have been built in recent years. Inclusionary zoning was established as policy for this part of town, in hopes of creating apartments that lower-income Tacomans could afford to rent. Boudet said this is generally aimed at people earning between 50 and 80 percent of the average median income. This is not the extremely poor, who generally are at 30 percent of less of the average median income. Boudet said a renter in the 50-80 range could be a household of four headed by a working adult, such as a school teacher.

Boudet said the council should understand the difference between such a policy being mandatory or voluntary for developers. If mandatory, it could create more affordable units, but only if a developer is willing to participate. A developer could choose not to build in an area with such a requirement, and instead go elsewhere where such a policy is not in place.

Boudet noted one advantage of inclusionary zoning is that it does not require a large public subsidy. “It is certainly not the solution, but it can play a role.”

A study on housing done by a consultant offered various scenarios for inclusionary zoning. One scenario would create 1,400 such units in the next 10 years. This would take other factors to achieve, such as perhaps a 30 percent reduction in required parking stalls. A fee paid by a developer in lieu of creating affordable housing is another possible factor. The success of this type of zoning would be tied to the city’s existing property tax break for multi-family housing projects.

Councilmember Keith Blocker said this could be a useful tool, but it carries risks. “This could potentially stall the development of housing,” he remarked.

Councilmember Robert Thoms said he does not want to do anything that will harm the real estate market. He mentioned his experience in finding a place to live for himself and his family over the years. He said that ultimately, he decides what is affordable for himself.

Councilmember Anders Ibsen cautioned against using a cookie cutter approach for every part of the city.

Mayor Woodard mentioned ongoing meetings of mayors around Pierce County on the topic of affordable housing. She cautioned against spending too much energy on policies that may not work out.

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